Token Creek Chamber Music

Program I

Program I - Prelude & Fugue

Sunday, September 4, 2022 at 4:00 P.M.


Three fugues, from The Art of Fugue (1742-1749) Johann Sebastian Bach Sonata in Bb for Violin and Piano, K.454 (1784) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Sonata No. 3 (2020) John Harbison Lied, for ‘cello and piano (2006) Harrison Birtwistle Trio in C major, Hob. XV:13 (1789) Franz Joseph Haydn Rose Mary Harbison, violin • Karl Lavine, ‘celloMark Bridges, ‘cello Karen Boe, piano • John Harbison, piano  

Program Notes

Those who have been present in recent years have come to expect another offering from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, music which was part of that composer’s final summation.  Our traversal of this set, about twenty fugues in all, began in 2016, with annual installments of a few fugues each summer to bring us this year to the conclusion of the series.

The first print editions (1751 & 1752) present the fugues in open score, that is, with each voice written on a separate staff and each in a different clef, as if they were originally offered free of performance assumption, the rendition to be assigned, perhaps, to an instrument familiar with the given clef.   And this is the way they were most heard thirty years ago, perhaps played by a string quartet or mixed group of instruments, with the assumption that the individual parts were most hearable if expressed in different timbres.  And it’s how the performer on our series first discovered and learned the first few fugues, in open score. But in fact, these fugues are clearly laid out to be played on a keyboard.   It is possible to get a finger on each note.  But it is a Test, much more trying than with the Fugues, each paired with a Prelude, in the two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

In fact, players familiar with the WTC express shock at the difference.  Craig Smith assigned himself No. 1 in Art of the Fugue, when he conceived a one-player-per-fugue full evening concert at Emmanuel Music Boston, where he was Artistic Director. Shortly before that performance he withdrew, a warning to the rest of us.  The very first fugue in Art of the Fugue is already a test, and they grow increasingly more taxing, arcane, and expressively varied as they proceed.

The fact that all the fugues derive their principal subject from the same source, and are all in the same key, seems daunting in live performance.  Eventually each fugue opens gates to the others. Like every big Bach collection, they make a sequence, full of contrast, varieties of energy, and frequent startling poetic and intimate details.

Fugue has an audience of either one or two, depending on its luck. Certainly the player is the first intended listener, a second is invited, hoped for, but finally not necessary.   This is not about esotericism or exclusivity, it is more about the appetite to inhabit something as private and unpredictable as these pieces.  Perhaps only in the last Beethoven quartet do we meet music that so rigorously states its own terms of communication.

The Art of the Fugue is music written without commission, specific performance goal, or identified audience. The next few pieces on this opening program of this final season are much more specifically motivated.

Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in B flat, K 454 derives from its composer’s abiding interest in instrumental skill and physical attractiveness, both present in the Italian violinist Regina Strinasacchi. It is possible to feel that Mozart’s writing for Interesting Women has special attentiveness and warmth. This sonata, unlike his final pair for this combination, is genial and generous, never studious or strenuous. It is hard to play it without imagining him playing, as legend has it, off a blank music lyre, not having time to copy out his own part, giving him greater latitude to admire his partner’ s charm and skill (notice the flair he offers her at the end of the two outer movements).

My Piano Sonata No. 3 was composed during the 2021 health emergency shutdown. It evolved during a sustained conversation with Jim Primosch, one of the Token Creek Festival’s most cherished composers (twice an in-person season guest).  He was planning a piano recital for March of 2021, inviting two of his friends, myself and Richard Wernick, to compose pieces for him to play on that occasion.

The piece I wrote for him seems a brief manifestation of our decades-long affinity and friendship. If a piece of music can be like a letter, sent not through the mail but sent through phrases and chords, this is such a piece.  As words between friends, it can speak simply, or at times enigmatically.  It can perhaps express worry, which I know is there somewhere.

In the course of the frequent exchanges about the music we were writing, our thoughts about the world inside and outside of Music, there appeared, gradually, indications that Jim was beginning to confront serious illness. His death from cancer so soon after those first worries, the performance unrealized, still seems impossible to absorb. We were fortunate to have had his presence and his music as such a vibrant part of the Token Creek Festival, and continue to cherish the memory.

The recent death, at age 88, of the British composer Harrison Birtwistle, known to some of us at the time of his death as the world’s leading composer of concert music, appears to remain unmarked by some of our largest presenting institutions.   Perhaps such activity is forthcoming, with large forces needing time for assemblage.  We as a small festival are fortunate to include in this year’s program his beautiful Lied, for ‘cello and piano, one of his last pieces, dedicated to Alfred Brendel.  All of Birtwistle’s pieces, small or large, stem from a natural spontaneity and self-confidence.

We have done many Haydn piano trios at the Token Creek Festival. We’ve covered all of our favorites, and still gems remain. The two-movement Trio in C, from 1789, offers an ideal way to conclude our opening concert of summer 2022.

The first movement is in a familiar Haydn trio mode, known as Double Variations.  In this case, the main role of the first set of variations, in C minor, is entrusted to the pianist, who plays two very assertive and rangy expansions on the theme. The interwoven second set, more approachable and warm, is led by the violin.  This is the music we hear at the end of the movement transformed into a little dream-like trance. The Finale alternates abruptly between manic energy and a rather formal hymn-like tune, whose civilized voice gracefully withdraws for the final moments of the piece.

— Notes by John Harbison
Artistic Co-Director, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival